Does the US need a Palestinian state?



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As the war in Gaza grinds on, the Biden administration has signaled interest in establishing a Palestinian state. On Feb. 7, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of an “irreversible path toward a Palestinian state,” and in the State of the Union Address, President Biden insisted that “the only real solution is a two-state solution.” In late January, 49 of the 51 Senate Democrats signed on to support for a Palestinian state. There is evidently little ambiguity as to the Democrats’ goal, so it is worth taking a closer look at its prospects and especially its significance for U.S. national interest.

Reaching that goal of a sovereign state will not be easy, and not only because of the many difficult points that would have to be addressed: the precise borders between Israel and Palestine, the status of Jerusalem, the dismantling of settlements, and the long-standing claim by Palestinians of a right to return into Israel proper. Yet even prior to exploring those challenges, it is vital to recognize that the two-state solution has little support in the region itself from either side.

The Israeli Cabinet, including both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political rivals, has rejected a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state without direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. Not surprisingly, since the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, the Israeli public has grown more hawkish, with at least two thirds opposing at Palestinian state. Most would now view the establishment of a state as undeserved reward for terror. Meanwhile in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no clear majority for a two-state solution, i.e. for an independent Palestine side by side with Israel. There is however very clear indication of widespread support for Hamas, according to a December poll. If the Biden administration intends to pursue a program to establish a Palestinian state, it has a lot of work to do to bring both the Israelis and the Palestinians along.

This disconnect between Washington’s policy aspirations and genuine public opinion in the region shows how this quixotic effort lacks credible realism. It may reflect a certain policy inertia, since the endgame of a Palestinian state is hardly a new idea. It may also be viewed as a tool for the administration to pressure the Israeli government with regard to its conduct of the war or even to undermine Netanyahu’s domestic political standing. However if the latter is the case, the ploy has not worked, since public American pressure has only had the effect of stiffening the resolve of the Israeli electorate. There is furthermore speculation that Washington’s ramped up advocacy of Palestinian statehood just reflects American domestic politics, and presidential candidate Biden’s need to win the Arab-American vote in the important swing state of Michigan.

Yet it is important to bypass these possible ulterior motives and instead to take the proposal for Palestinian statehood at face value. That a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank hills overlooking the Israeli population centers around Tel Aviv would represent a security threat to Israel is clear. There is certainly no credible way to guarantee a genuine demilitarization of such a state that would be consistent with sovereignty. Yet a different question should be posed: Would establishing a Palestinian state be productive for American national interest? When one considers various ramifications, the answer is clearly no.

The most immediate impact of a Palestinian state will be on its neighbors, not only Israel but also Jordan. The country is a significant partner to the U.S. and a vital part of the regional security architecture. Jordan is however a monarchy, where elections have at best limited political significance. It is also a country riven by ethnic tensions between native Jordanians and a large Palestinian population; indeed the territory of the Hashemite Kingdom was carved out of Mandate Palestine by the British, and there is a bloody history of conflict between the Jordanian state and Palestinian radicals. If a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank and Gaza, and if that future state has a democratic character, with electoral processes and guarantees of rights, it is sure to follow that the Palestinians in Jordan will begin to demand similar democratic rights. Either the monarchy will have to adapt quickly, or the achievement of a Palestinian state will directly threaten the durability of the monarchy. A “free Palestine” will send shock waves to Amman. Instability in Jordan will then turn into opportunities both for terrorist factions that will spill over from Syria and Iraq, or for Iranian intrusion. While the logic of Palestinian statehood may seem clear in the State Department, the implications for Jordan could be dire, including a loss for American influence in the region.

Secondly, the likely political character of the Palestinian state is cause for concern. To be sure, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has spoken of a “revamped and revitalized” Palestinian Authority, presumably with significant personnel changes. Whether switching out the figurehead personalities will overcome the widespread suspicion directed at the Ramallah leadership is an open question at best. Of greater concern is the popularity of Hamas, especially but not only among younger Palestinians. Indeed support for Hamas rose after the October attack. A new state might be established with “technocratic” leaders, but once elections take place, it is very likely that Hamas will come to power. Washington should focus on the reality of the Palestinian state it is trying to establish and whether it really wants to build as platform for Hamas’ Islamist radicalism. A Hamas dominated Palestine is sure to ally with Iran, whose influence would then extend throughout the region. It should not be hard to understand that building the Iranian bloc is not in American national interest.

Thirdly, forcing Israel to accept the security threat that a Palestinian state will inevitably represent will harm American reputation’s throughout the Middle East and beyond. The U.S. has been viewed as the strong patron of Israel since the early 1970s, whether in terms of military aid or in the diplomatic jungle of the United Nations. If Washington suddenly chooses to reverse course on Israel, other partners will question the reliability of American promises. Saudi Arabia already has plenty of reasons to believe that the foreign policy of the Obama-Biden team was designed to enhance Iranian power and has therefore pursued openings to China. Europe is already worrying about the reliability of NATO commitments or American tenacity regarding Ukraine. Similar worries can well emerge in South Korea or Japan. How Washington treats Israel in this matter will be watched closely around the world.

The question of a Palestinian state is not only a local matter for the populations of Gaza and the West Bank. Nor is it only a question of an abstract principle of a right to national self-determination, since that ideal ought to apply equally for the Kurds and the Sikhs as well. For the U.S. the Palestinian question should be foremost about the effectiveness of American power in the region — particularly with regard to Iranian adversariality — and credibility throughout the world. Rushing toward a Palestinian state will be deleterious on both those scores.

Russell A. Berman is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. The views here are his own.



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